A Parable on Race


One of the biggest mistakes white evangelicals make when thinking or talking about race is to assume that it is a personal issue.  We often think that because we don’t believe people of color are inferior to white people that we aren’t racist.  We believe that racism is a personal sin issue that should be addressed by helping people individually become less racist.  It happens when someone makes a racist comment.  But the reality is that racism is ultimately a systemic evil.  I recently read a parable that helps explain this:

Both Maridel and Parker were overweight, to the point of being unnealthy.  They decided it was the time to do something drastic.  Responding to an ad for a Fat-Away program, they drove to a rural area in their state, where they were taken to separate areas of the woods.  For six weeks, they would be locked into these “compounds,” as they were called.  In each compound, according to the ad, were the perfect ingredients needed to lose weight.  Their goal was to each lose forty pounds.  What they did not know is that the less-than-ethical Fat-Away organization was really a research laboratory studying the effects of various diets, exercise programs, and weight-loss expectations on people’s weight change.  Whithout a word to Maridel and Parker, they placed Maridel in a compound designed to help her lose weight, but they placed Parker i a compund designed for Parker to gain weight.

In Maridel’s compound were running trails, a swimming pool, state-of-the-art exercise equipment, a basketball court, and a sauna.  In her cabin were magazines on proper nutrition, instructional videos on how to lose weight, an abundance of natural, healthy, low-fat, low-calorie foods, and no sweets.  Each day she was greeted early by fit and trim people who asked Maridel to go on a run with them, talked about how much they loved being thin, and encouraged her that she too can be thin — wonderful conditions for losing weight.

In Parker’s compound was only a tiny cabin.  No exercise equipment was available whatsoever, but there were plenty of videos and movies that showed high-calorie foods looking sumptuous, more high-calorie goodies than even a sumo wrestler could desire, and just a few fruits and vegetables.  The only other people Parker saw were also obese, and though they talked about losing weight, they seemed not to really care about their weight–not good conditions for losing weight.

The program called for each participant to weigh in at the start, and then every two weeks thereafter.  At the end of two weeks, with neither aware of what was inside the other’s compound, Maridel and Parker were taken to the weighing room.  They each took their turn on the scale.  Maridel stepped on the scale first.  She had lost nineteen pounds! Parker’s turn produced far less excitement.  He actually gained two pounds.

Maridel, who assumed that both she and Parker had the same type of compound, was irritated with Parker.  “We paid good money to be here, Parker.  How can you waste it?  You have to exercise, you have to eat right!”  Parker tried to make his case, but it only made Maridel more irritated.  Maridel told Parker he needed to try harder.  Parker, though he was depressed about his weight gain and the difficulty in exercising adequately and eating right, resolved to do so.

Divided by Faith, pg. 110-111

According to the authors, white evangelicals blame the discrepancies in results between Parker and Maridel primarily in terms of personal effort and responsibility, but fail to take into account the system-level or structural elements that both constrain and shape the differing results.

The same holds true with racial inequality.  By not seeing the structures that impact on individual initiative — such as unequal access to quality education, segregated neighborhoods that concentrate the already higher black poverty rate and lead to further social problems, and other forms of discrimination — the structures are allowed to continue unimpeded.  pg. 112

To say to Parker that he failed to loss weight because he didn’t try hard enough, because he isn’t motivated, or because he wasn’t taking advantage of the opportunities presented to him seems naive at best.  As white evangelicals, we need to talk about system-level sin issues.  We need to see the structural difference available to people.  We need to confess the brokenness of our system, not just our personal faculties.


3 responses to “A Parable on Race”

  1. Great thoughts, John. I used to believe wholeheartedly in the lie that one can “pull him/herself up by the bootstraps,” and that it really was an issue of desire, initiative, and effort that led to success or failure. It’s true that there are deeply embedded systemic injustices that perpetuate poverty among certain ethnic and/or socio-economic groups…

    As an Asian-American woman, I straddle the line between undeserved privilege and marginalization. On one hand, I acknowledge and admit that my race, superficial appearance (height, skin tone, weight, etc.) and other innate characteristics put me at an advantage and give me access to opportunities that I have not necessarily earned. Conversely, I have been in situations where my ethnicity, gender, and/or personality were the source of exclusion and disadvantage. Although it’s hard to be in the position of the latter, I am thankful for the ways that it provides regular opportunity for reflection on how to view my privilege. For the most part, I am no more deserving of the latter but they have been made more readily to me (in some respects) because of things outside my control.

    Curious to know if you have had the chance to read John M. Perkins (Mississippi) or Bob Lupton (Atlanta, GA). Both have great perspective on the issue, and have devoted their lives and ministries to addressing systemic injustice, particulary around poverty and race.

  2. Good stuff John and Jin Min.

  3. Jin Min,

    Thanks for the great reply! I really appreciate your honesty, and your insight. Really good stuff.

    I do know of John Perkins. I’m particularly interested in his Zech. 8 program that he runs in Mississippi. I think it’s really cool, and potentially something that we could do in Minneapolis. There’s an organization that is already doing something similar, Urban Homeworks.

    Our church plant is in the near suburbs of Minneapolis, so I’m trying to contextualize as best I can. In the not too distant future, I would also really like to host a faith & race event (something like what Quest in Seattle does). I’m just trying to figure out how best to do that.

    Thanks again for sharing!